Feature Story

The life aquatic: Small islands in the Atlantic & Indian oceans working together to fight tough water challenges

March 19, 2018

Six countries scattered across the Atlantic and Indian oceans all share problems relating to the scarcity and contamination of freshwater supplies. In response to these challenges, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) funded a full-sized project to address the urgent need for Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and to improve water use efficiency in the SIDS of the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Two oceans, three distinct languages, six Small Island Developing States (SIDS): the nations of Cabo Verde, Comoros, Maldives, Mauritius, São Tomé & Príncipe and Seychelles are geographically dispersed, but they have come together to improve the management of water resources.

The six countries – scattered across the Atlantic and Indian oceans − differ profoundly in size and level of economic development, but all six share problems relating to the scarcity and contamination of freshwater supplies; over-exploitation and poor management of groundwater resources; pollution in surface water; increasing pressure on agricultural production; and rapidly disappearing biodiversity.


In response to these challenges, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) funded a full-sized project to address the urgent need for Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and to improve water use efficiency in the SIDS of the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

The GEF-financed project, Implementing Integrated Water Resources Management in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean Small Island Developing States (IWRM AIO SIDS), jointly implemented by UNDP and UN Environment, has worked to strengthen the commitment and capacity of the six participating countries to implement an integrated, ecosystem-based approach to the management of freshwater resources.

The long-term goal has been to make sure each country is adequately prepared to manage their aquatic resources and ecosystems on a sustainable basis.


Access to drinking water and basic sanitation is an essential human right, and the task of ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all is imperative for equitable and sustainable development.

Through the combined efforts of these six SIDS, nearly 100,000 community members have already benefitted from improved water quality, which reduces poverty, improves health outcomes, facilitates climate change adaptation, and mitigates the threat of natural and man-made hazards.


Demonstration projects in each country have also contributed to gender equality by acknowledging and reinforcing the role that women play in managing water, and mainstreaming gender dimensions into wider project outputs.

Cabo Verde

Water use and water management is a priority in Cabo Verde. On this stunning island chain, rain tends to be very intense at the beginning of the rainy season. With much of the plant life having died back during the dry season, run-off is very high (and very rich in sediment), so recharging of the groundwater supply is initially very poor.

Heavy sedimentation negatively affects the coastline and the coastal and marine ecosystems.

10 year old Cleber Borges and his dad working in their field in Colonato, using drip irrigation distributed by the project.

The coastal fishing town of Tarrafal in Santiago was selected for the IWRM Cabo Verde Demonstration site because it is increasingly becoming a popular tourist destination. Tarrafal, however, faces serious challenges with respect to the overexploitation of its groundwater, limited water available for agricultural use, coastal water quality, and sanitation services for its residents.

As part of the demonstration project, farmers in Colonato were trained and supported with micro irrigation kits.

In total, 100 kits for water-efficient agricultural production were distributed. Two workshops were held to train farmers on agricultural production using treated wastewater under a micro-drip irrigation system.

A special focus was placed on training women farmers on tree planting and aquifer protection measures, such as preventing coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion.

In total, the project facilitated the planting of 3,000 fruit trees and 1,000 halophyte (salt-tolerant) plants, forming a living barrier against erosion and leading to an improvement of soils in the Colonato agricultural area.


With a total area of 1,862 km2, Comoros is the third-smallest nation in Africa. It is also among the least developed countries in the world, with about half of the population living below the poverty line. Over 80 per cent of Comorians are dependent on agriculture and fishing for their livelihoods. Staple crops are bananas, cassava, and taro, while cloves, ylang-ylang, and vanilla are grown for export.

Polluted water from rivers end up flowing straight into the ocean, resulting in solid waste piling up on the beaches and affecting the coastal ecosystems on which so many islanders depend.

In the past, Anjouan, a mountainous island of extraordinary beauty, had more than 40 rivers, and farmers enjoyed bountiful harvests. But owing to climate change and its ancillary consequences, today there are only seven rivers left.

As a result, water has become a scarce commodity.

For the people of Mtusamudu, the second largest city in Comoros their river was badly affected by high sediment loading and pollution caused by solid waste, leading to poor water quality.

Community support for the protection and management of the Mutsamudu River Basin has been critical for the success of the the demonstration project.

An integrated approach was therefore needed to tackle the problems of pollution and erosion, which became the focus of the IWRM demonstration project in Comoros.

The project supported the development and implementation of an IWRM plan for the Mutsamudu River basin, and significantly improved the management of the river catchment. The project was implemented in a highly participatory manner, with communities, army, municipality, and the regional government fully engaged to implement various activities to protect their own water source.

The successful IWRM demonstration at the Mutsamudu River basin motivated the national government to adopt the National IWRM Plan in 2017.

The awareness-raising campaign included major river clean-up activities, coupled with trialling solid waste collection services. These efforts helped pave the way for the regional government to establish a responsible solid waste management system on the island.

Additionally, small-scale farmers, whose traditional farming practices resulted in a high degree of soil erosion and siltation, have been trained to make their farming practices more productive These practices are also helping farmers avoid erosion and siltation, working to restore their land and also imrpove the water quality in the area.


The Maldives are an archipelago of 1,192 coral islands grouped into 26 coral atolls in the Indian Ocean. With an average elevation of 1.5m above sea level, it is the planet's lowest country.

In the Maldives, 17 islands across the archipelago received new water supply systems, and 18 islands received new sewerage systems over the past three years. Within the next five years, these figures will rise to 23 and 49 respectively, covering 75 per cent of the population.

Farmers and the broader citizenry of Thoddoo, Maldives, expressed concern about the contamination of the island’s freshwater lens, so an Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) demonstration project was initiated to protect their lens from over-extraction and pollution.

A major output of the demonstration project has been to establish an integrated water supply system. This includes the infrastructure required to collect and store rainwater, a desalination plant, and a water distribution network that provides every household on Thoddoo Island with clean drinking water. Also serving to reduce the extraction of groundwater.

Aerial view of the facilities built with project support.

Construction of a 1,000m3 rainwater collection tank connected to 10 public buildings has been completed.

Rainwater collected from the roofs of these buildings will be channelled through a pipeline to a lifting station from which it will be pumped to the rainwater holding tank. Water in the tank will be filtered and cleaned before being pumped to a second holding tank, where it will be mixed with fresh water produced by a desalination plant. This water is also sterilised one more time before being channelled to households via a newly designed and constructed distribution network. The idea is to supplement and mix the water that is produced by the desalination plant with rainwater to improve the taste.

The rainwater harvesting system is working to supply at least 25 per cent of the water that is distributed to homes. However, on other islands in the Maldives, similar systems are supplying up to 75 percent of piped water, so it is possible that rainwater could supply a much higher percentage of piped water to Thoddoo islanders in future.


As part of the implementation of the National Integrated Water Resources Management Plan, the Government of Mauritius needed to establish a set of policy guidelines to protect its groundwater resources from over-extraction and pollution.

To establish these guidelines and to support management decisions related to water resources management, comprehensive groundwater monitoring systems was required. This is what the IWRM demonstration project in Mauritius focussed on.

The IWRM demonstration project in Mauritius focused on the creation of comprehensive groundwater monitoring systems.

A detailed monitoring of the Northern Aquifer, a vitally important source of fresh water in Mauritius, made possible through the project’s interventions, has begun generating comprehensive information about the groundwater resource and the twin risks of contamination and salt water intrusion.

The Northern Aquifer is the main source of water for the Northern districts of Mauritius, which depend largely on tourism and agriculture for economic development. For both sectors, functioning, sustainable water systems are critically important.

Improved understanding, by both engineers and local communities, helps the Government and the people of Mauritius to adopt integrated approaches to water management, with the goal of protecting precious groundwater resources and ensuring sustainable water supply and diversifying sources.

The improved capacity to monitor groundwater closely has led the Government to issue policy guidelines on establishment of desalination plants and on industrial effluent discharge permit systems.

Sao Tome

In São Tomé and Príncipe, the Rio Provaz basin is the main source of water for domestic and industrial use in the town of Neves, the capital of Lembá district.

Over the past few years, the basin has been affected by several natural disasters, exacerbated by changes in land use and climate change. There has been an increase in land conversion from tropical rain forest to agriculture and charcoal production - practices that pose a major threat to the water resources of the Provaz, and which may compromise water supply in the future.

These issues were brought to the fore in October 2009, when floods swept through part of Neves, causing major damage to the residential area and to the water supply infrastructure.

In São Tomé and Principe, women and children fetch the majority of water for household uses in rural areas.

Concern for the future, and a recognition of the importance of the river’s resources to the people of Neves, have led to the decision that the IWRM demonstration project in São Tomé and Príncipe to focus on improving the management of the Provaz River catchment.

It provides an opportunity for the 8,500 people who depend on the river’s resources - for everything from drinking to washing - to address the problems affecting the quantity and quality of water in the river.

A catchment committee was formed through which communities voiced their opinions to help influence decisions about how the river resources should be managed.

The successful implementation of the demonstration project in Neves has led the Government to replicate the practices of improved and participatory catchment management at three other river basins in the country, including one in Príncipe, and develop the National Integrated Water Resources Management Plan. Further, it has led to the drafting and enactment of a new Water Act, the very first in the country.


In La Digue, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Seychelles, the aquifer was under threats from over-extraction, pollution and salt water intrusion.

A multi-pronged approach towards protecting the integrity of the groundwater aquifer on La Digue helps the people of the island to balance the economic benefits generated by tourism with the need to conserve precious water resources and pristine coastal areas.

The IWRM demonstration project in Seychelles focussed on promoting rainwater harvesting, restoring marshes, building infrastructure to prevent saltwater intrusion, improving solid and hazardous waste collection and management, and improving the leachate collection and treatment system at the island’s rubbish tip.

School kids taking part in water monitoring activities on La Digue island as part of awareness raising activities.

In addition to the successful implementation of the demonstration activities, Seychelles endorsed its first National Water Policy and National Integrated Water Resources Management Plan in 2017. The project also facilitated the development of a Water Bill and a monitoring framework to track the anticipated impacts.


This multi-partner, multi-country project emphasized the importance of public participation principle of IWRM. Securing water for the countries’ future is everyone’s problem, from communities to policy makers, to students and politicians, farmers and hotel managers. Every islander has a role to play to protect freshwater and the healthy ecosystems that provide it.

Through the promotion of IWRM implementation, the project supported the countries to achieve Sustainable Development Goals related to water, sanitation, and ecosystems management, and beyond.

For more information on the project, please visit here.

For more information on UNDP's Water and Ocean Governance Programme (WOGP), please visit here.

This story was originally published by UNDP

Story by Andrea Egan, Akiko Yamamoto, Geraldine Deblon, and Daniel Nzyuko/ Photos: IWRM AIO SIDS